Translators of patents from various languages into English can spend many hours looking for the right translation of an obscure and/or illegible character, word, or technical term. Increasingly, correct answers can be found and verified quickly, and with precision, on the Internet. The key is knowing where to look. This article is an attempt at an introduction to some of the most important sites that I’ve found invaluable in my work as a translator of patents from Japanese, German, French, and other languages over the last 15 years. I hope the following will prove to be of some help, especially to relative beginners in this fascinating field.
Thousands of patents are translated every year from many languages into English. If we were to classify the languages from which these patents are translated by the number of patents for translation into English per language (language frequency), Japanese would lead by a big margin, followed by German, with French as a distant third. Therefore, this article will concentrate on websites that publish the text of patents in the original language. It will also provide the reader with other information, mostly as it relates to these three languages (namely, Japanese, German, and French) that are so important to technical communication.
The European Patent Office Website
Whether you translate patents from Japanese, German, or French, the most important website, containing an incredible wealth of technical terms and life-saving context, that can probably answer most of your questions is bound to be the website of the European Patent Office (EPO) at
http://ep.espacenet.com. This is because, to my knowledge, the EPO website is the only site to list some 30 million patent applications from a number of countries, including Japan, on a single website, not only in English, but also in Japanese, German, and French. Most of the unexamined Japanese (Kokai) patent applications listed here are provided with an English summary. As such, they can be found and displayed by running a search in English on the EPO search page. If you translate from more languages than simply Japanese, you can use the EPO website to look at translations of a certain Japanese technical terms done by other people, usually patent lawyers in their respective countries, not only into English, but also into other languages in a number of countries that are members of the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT). Your search for a technical term in English may also display translations of patents containing this term in languages such as Czech, Polish, or Russian. Unfortunately, for now, usually only foreign (U.S., Japanese, German, etc.) patents that have been translated into various national languages and filed in their respective countries can be found in this manner. Only the first 500 patents containing the terms in your query will be displayed, but that is usually more than enough to enable you to find the answer to your question (provided that your query is well formulated).
The disadvantage of the EPO website is that if the foreign patent in question does not have an English summary, even if you have its correct number, the website will usually not be able to find it. This can be remedied by going to the Japanese, German, or French Patent Office websites and running a search in the language in question or else entering the patent number in the search field. Another disadvantage of the EPO site is that searching is possible only in English, while the Japanese, German, and French Patent Office sites can, obviously, be searched in the relevant national languages. The websites of the Japanese and German Patent Offices can also be searched in English, although the coverage of abstracts
in English is somewhat limited. The text of English summaries is in HTML format, while the text in foreign languages is displayed in PDF format. I usually save and print the English summary in MS Word. Because the PDF file must be saved and printed page by page, I usually just print instead of saving it to a file. Since the same patent that was originally published in Japanese, German, or French may have been previously translated and filed in another language in another country, you can type in the name of the inventor or the patent applicant (usually the name of the company) to display a translation of the term you are looking for. You can also type in context from a similar patent to help you answer your questions.
You may even sometimes discover, to your dismay, that the patent in question has already been translated into English. For instance, a patent may have originally been filed in Japanese in Japan or in French in Switzerland, and then translated and filed in the U.S. or Europe in English. This has happened to me quite a few times. However, because patents are almost always changed and modified to some degree to comply with the various filing requirements of different countries, your clients are likely to commission a translation anyway in order to ascertain exactly how a patent has been changed. So far, I have only had one client cancel a job because a previous translation exists. The patent in question was in French, which makes it relatively easy, even for a monolingual patent lawyer, to determine where and how extensive the changes probably are without the considerable expense of a professional translator. Again, if the original patent text is in Japanese, or even in German, the client will usually go ahead with the translation, or at least ask you to describe the changes and write a summary, for which you can bill by the hour. I think it is better to explain the situation to the client first. The danger, namely a lost opportunity to earn money if the same or very similar translation already exist, is in my opinion, more than compensated for by the fact that we can cultivate a long-term relationship with a client who may be sending us work for many more years. Our clients will also appreciate our honest appraisal of whether another translation is necessary or not. In most cases, however, the patent law firm in question will be aware of the fact that, for instance, a U.S. patent that has been translated into Japanese, English, or French has been modified. In such cases, the patent translator may be asked either to translate only the claims, which are almost always changed in different languages and countries, or the entire patent, regardless of the cost (for instance, if the case is already being litigated and every minute terminological change or turn of phrase can have an impact on the final result).
A patent translator who does not thoroughly research his or her patents on the Internet by comparing two versions of “the same patent” (which is not really the same patent), is at a distinct disadvantage compared to a translator who is willing and able to spend some time researching the patents first on the Internet. The instructions on the EPO website can be displayed in English, German, or French, but the website can be searched only in English. However, you can search the German or French Patent Offices in German or French and find a relevant patent number or the names of inventors in this manner. You can then come back to the EPO site armed with the patent number that was invisible when the search was conducted in English. I also use the EPO website for research involving U.S. patents, instead of the United States Patent Office (USPTO) website, because the USPTO website displays only U.S. patents in English, which is usually not enough to satisfy my curiosity.
The Japanese Patent Office Website
The Japanese Patent Office (JPO) website (http://www.ipdl.jpo.go.jp/Tokujitu/tjsogodb.ipdl?N0000=101) is well known among, and often used by, experienced Japanese patent translators. Most U.S. patent lawyers I talked to seem to be unaware of the English search page of the JPO website (http://www1.ipdl.jpo.go.jp/PA1/cgi-bin/PA1INIT?101862252070), as they usually search for Japanese patents from the EPO site. The Japanese part of the JPO site (http://www.ipdl.jpo.go.jp/Tokujitu/tjsogodb.ipdl?N0000=101) has a more comprehensive collection of Japanese patents than the EPO site.
Unlike the EPO website, which only displays unexamined Japanese (Kokai) patents, the Japanese part of the JPO site also displays examined (Kokoku) Japanese patents, as well as utility models and granted patents. The English part of the site lists only Kokai patents, which can be discovered through a search for an English term thanks to their English summaries. However, utility models, examined patents, and granted patents will not be displayed in the English part of the site. You have to a specify PDF format if you want a legible copy of the Japanese text (the default resolution loads faster, but, at 90 dpi, it is very hard to read). The Japanese part of the JPO website can be searched for terms in Japanese, but not in English. Similarly, the English part of the site can be searched only in English. You can display the Japanese text in HTML or PDF format. You can then copy text in Japanese in HTML format and use it to search for patents in the Japanese part of the site. The only patent or utility model texts that will not be displayed in the comprehensive Japanese part of the site are those that are too recent, and thus have not yet been stored.
When new texts are stored, access to the site may not be available for an extended period, which happens often in the morning (U.S. time). Kokai patent applications are provided with an English summary, which also lists the title of the patent and the names of all of the inventors. I usually defer to the spelling of the Japanese names as they are listed on the JPO website, because Japanese names can only be guessed at anyway, and I hate guessing. Unless I strongly disagree with the terms, I try to use the title of the patent and the terms provided in the summary in my translation as much as possible, since I know my clients will also be using them. It should be noted that the English summaries are usually written by native Japanese speakers, whose English is frequently not terribly good and often difficult to understand.
Although the technical terms are usually correct and often helpful to me, especially when I deal with a field that I translate from only occasionally (such as a medical patent dealing with body parts, muscles, ligaments, bones, and cartilages that I never even knew existed), I can usually understand the English text of these summaries only after I have had a chance to compare them to the Japanese original, sometime several times. This is mostly because the writers of these summaries are not professional translators into English, but rather (Japanese) specialists in their particular fields who frequently make just about every mistake a native Japanese speaker can make when translating into English. A big problem is that the sentences in English basically slavishly imitate the word order in Japanese. The problem is that the word order in English is fixed and very different from the typical order in Japanese. Moreover, unlike English sentences, Japanese sentences often have no object, singular or plural, tense, and the verb is always at very end of the sentence, etc. Because the choice of the English word is often poor and words are frequently misspelled, the result can be quite hilarious. However, since whoever approves these summaries must be a Japanese native who lives in Japan, none of the above apparently matters. As all foreigners who have lived and worked in Japan know, the “kacho” (“section chief”) always knows best, especially when it comes to translation into English.
In spite of the drawback of the JPO website mentioned above, it should also be noted that unlike, for instance, the Germans, and especially the French, the Japanese make a great effort and spend a lot of money to provide access to technical information via the JPO website to technical specialists who do not speak their beautiful but complicated language. Only the JPO provides Japanese and English interfaces, as well as summaries for most Japanese patent applications in English. The German Patent Office (GPO) website provides an English interface for navigation, but relatively few English summaries of German patents when compared to JPO. The interface on the French Patent Office (FPO) website is only in French, and very few English summaries are available. Other patent offices of smaller countries sometime “piggyback” on the EPO website to make information available to their monolingual readers. For instance, the patent office of the Czech Republic provides an interface in Czech to make it easier for Czech patent lawyers and inventors to research patents on the EPO website in different languages. I read somewhere online that a proposal has been put forward by U.S. patent lawyers to require the JPO to allow filing of patents in Japan and related court proceedings in English. This is due to the difficulty foreigners have with the Japanese language. The JPO answered that Japan will consider this, provided that the same courtesy be extended to Japanese patent lawyers in America, especially given how difficult it is for the Japanese to master foreign languages.
Another unique feature that clearly distinguishing the JPO website from the websites of all other countries is the fact that the JPO makes machine translations (MT) available of all Japanese patent applications going back to about 1994. This feature can be accessed and navigated from the English part of the JPO site quite easily, even if you do not read Japanese. As I have already described my experience with MT and my thoughts on the technology in general in two other articles, available on the Internet and listed at the end of this article, I will only say that MT is, in my opinion, very useful to patent translators and their clients. I wish that patent offices in other countries would follow suit with the JPO, although I do not think it likely in the foreseeable future.
The MT feature of the JPO site is a logical result of the fact that Japan is very interested in overcoming “the Japanese language problem.” That is, that relatively few foreigners can read and write Japanese, and relatively few Japanese are fluent in English or another language (unlike the Dutch, or even the French or Germans). This is why many Japanese search engines also have the MT function, which is probably much more frequently used in Japan than in any other country. Although the results of translations by machines will not really provide a real translation, they will give the reader some idea about the original text. To test MT on one of my favorite subjects (my wife), I used the MT feature of one of the Japanese search engines to translate one of my articles posted on the Internet into Japanese, and asked for her esteemed opinion of the translation. At first, she was impressed that somebody would bother to translate what her husband wrote into Japanese. However, as she continued reading, she become rather agitated and declared categorically that I have to stop writing this kind of nonsense because I sound like a total idiot in Japanese. Even when I explained to her that I am not really a complete moron, and that the problem is related to MT, she nevertheless insisted that, “I should not let them translate what I write into Japanese like this, because people will think that I am an idiot anyway if I let them do that.” Well, she has a point, although I am not sure how to stop search engines in Japan from doing their job.
The German Patent Office (DEPATISnet) Website
The German Patent Office (GPO) website (http://www.dpma.de/suche/patentdatenbanken.html) has more complete coverage of patents and utility models in the German language than the EPO website. Both the German and English interfaces are supported, and both can be searched, by using English or German terms. A major advantage of the search page on this site is the fact that one can search for terms both in English and in German, while the EPO site can be searched only in English. You can specify whether to search for an item only within the title of a patent or in the full text, or both. Up to five items can be specified, including the number of the patent publication, the name of the inventor, and the name of the patent applicant. You can also search for patent titles and for words in the full text of patents. You can transcribe umlauts with two vowels, a sharp s with two ss letters, etc., which is a very handy feature if you normally don’t type in German every day. For instance, you can type “Extrusionbeschichten von Polymerfolien” to search for patents containing the terms and context you need in German, which will often be displayed together with Patent Cooperation Treaty (PTC) patents in English or French. Or you can type “extrusion coating of polymer films” to find a patent in German in the same manner as on the EPO website. You can sometime find a translation of the same patent from German into English and vice versa by searching for the name of the inventor or the patent applicant to research your technical terms and relevant context. You can also double check the correct terms in French, if you also translate from French, when you see Canadian patents listed for the same subject. This is because all Canadian patents are provided with a French summary, and Canada has a lot of patents in many technical fields.
The French Patent Office Website
The main advantage of the FPO website (Institute National de la Propriété Industrielle; http://www.inpi.fr/brevet/html/titre/index.htm) is that it allows searches in French. Only the French interface is supported, and searching can be done only in French. Unlike the Germans and Japanese, the French will not bother speaking to you if you don’t know their language. If you don’t speak French, tant pis pour toi. The default display is in HTML format, which is handy for copying, cutting, and pasting when you are searching for technical terms. You can scroll down to the end of the file and click on the PDF icon to display the entire document in the PDF format (again, only a page at a time). You can also click on “Déposants et Inventeurs” to search for names of French companies and inventors. You can then often find their patents on the EPO website translated into English or German, or provided with an English summary. You can search patents in three categories directly from the search page of the FPO: French (FR), European (EP), and International PCT patents (WO). The FPO search page also has a link to the quick search page of the EPO. Hélas, only the interface is supported in French, and you can only search in English on the EPO site.
Patent Offices of Other Countries
Although the websites of the patent offices of most countries can be found on the web easily by running a search in Google or another search engine or from links on my website (www.patenttranslators.com), many of them require registration and/or payment before they let you search, and I never register or pay unless I absolutely have to. However, translators can use the interfaces in a number of languages provided by the national offices of countries cooperating with the EPO to access the servers of the national offices in various languages. You can also access the EPO database to ascertain the correct translation of technical terms in a number of languages. The table below lists the countries and supported languages cooperating with the EPO. The URLs will take you to the search page of the EPO with interfaces in the respective languages, and you can click your way to the main page of respective national patent offices from this search page. For example, it is easy, after clicking on a few links, to run a search in Czech. You can then display a patent filed by a major U.S., German, or French company in Czech translation in the Czech Republic in order to compare Czech translations of technical terms to English technical terms.
The fact that the text of patents in foreign languages can be often found easily on the Internet means that translators of patents from foreign languages into English no longer have to guess when faced with technical terms that may be new, complicated, company-specific, misspelled, etc. Unlike translators in other fields, we can usually not call the writer in question and ask him or her to clarify the meaning. But we can do the next best thing – compare important patent terms to other patents in the same field or by the same inventors, which can be often found quite easily on the Internet in several languages. The Internet thus brings to intrepid patent translators an unparalleled joy – we can have most of our questions answered, usually within a few minutes, and we no longer have to ask anybody any questions, which most of us are loath to do as we don’t like to bother other people and/or don’t want to let other people know that there are still things our there that we don’t know much about yet.